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Who Should Own Renewals? Customer Success or Sales?

When renewal time rolls around, who should own the process - customer success or sales?
Patrick Icasas
December 8, 2021
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When it comes time to renew, what team do you want owning the event with your customers - customer success or sales? We brought in two people to discuss this, one on each side of the debate. In favor of customer success owning the renewal experience, we have Sabina Pons, Vice President of Customer Success, Support, Community, and Loyalty from Mavenlink. On the other side, we have Scott Dzialo, Senior Director from Braze. The split between the two of them is also exemplary of survey results Catalyst received when asking who should own the process. Forty-one percent voted for CSMs, 50% for sales and account managers, and 9% were undecided. So, for those of you who are undecided, or perhaps open-minded enough to change positions, we’ll lay out the benefits of each type of setup. 

When CSMs don’t own renewals, can it feel like having too many cooks in the kitchen? 

When a customer has a fine dining experience, they might expect that most of their interactions will be with their server, leaving the back of the house staff behind the scenes. Sabina equates the renewal experience with CSMs to that of serving up a beautiful culinary creation for customers. As long as it’s to their liking, they don’t need to be concerned with everything that happened before it came to their table. 

Scott doesn’t see the problem as having “too many cooks,” but instead focuses on the quality of the touchpoints for the customer. What he decides to do with people is tactical. For example, with clients that span the globe, it may make the most sense to have 12 people working on account management across various time zones. Scott isn’t afraid of the back of the house being up in front, or there being too many cooks in general. 

If CSMs are involved in more roles, such as renewals, does it muddy the waters with no separation in responsibilities? 

If there is no separation between the CSM and the team, then everything goes through the CSM, including negotiations, negative experiences, and contract discussions. If CSMs are being expected to handle this all, will it hinder their ability to focus on the relationship they should be building? 

Sabina believes that in order to have true relationship building, all touchpoints need to be viewed holistically. While there is a time and place for the separation of church and state, it depends on the nature of the relationship with the client. When adoption, expansion, and renewal exist in silos, it is hard to present or deliver a holistic customer experience. 

If you choose to add more team members to the process, Scott acknowledges that it takes more coordination, but if you work through the challenges of collaborating, it can be done effectively. Sometimes, the customer will even have a team working with you, such as a procurement person you’re working with, instead of the customer themselves. Negotiations can get messy, and if CSMs have an out to avoid difficult conversations, they’ll have opportunities to smooth other things over and keep the relationship harmonious. 

How should CSMs context switch, if at all, between responsibilities? 

At Mavenlink, there is a whole professional services team that performs onboarding for new customers, a relatively new practice. There are also subject matter experts available in different areas as needed to provide deeper knowledge and training. However, CSMs are expected to know the product well, understand when new things are deployed, perform light solutioning and training, and while they don’t “own” everything, they are expected to facilitate everything. 

What does the renewal process look like at Mavenlink and Braze? 

Renewals at Mavenlink are geared towards maximizing retention and growth, not just minimizing churn. Before having the conversation with the customer, the CSM has reviewed the original signed contract, every order form and statement of work, as well as a checklist for what to cover with the customer. They are as educated as possible on the matter before they engage in dialog with the customer. Some other questions they cover include: 

  • Who originally purchased the software? What roles did they play? Who is still with the company? 
  • Are the business objectives the same now as they were when they purchased?

When it comes to Braze, AEs and CSMs work together in lockstep, ideally keeping the relationship the same throughout the entire lifecycle of the client engagement. While goals are variable between sales and success, they make sure that all teams feel the benefits of winning and retaining business. Incentives are aligned to drive towards renewals and upsells. When a customer is getting closer to renewal, the CSM comes together with the AE to outline the steps they are taking collectively to get there, and what they need to do to stay on the same page, such as frequency of touching base. Each person involved does their part to push the relationship forward. 

What are some desired skill sets for CSMs? 

Soft skills were more sought after when Sabina was hired, but now, the focus is more on having a commercial relationship with the clients. The turning point came for Mavenlink through coaching and development, including sales and business development workshops, designed to strengthen skills for CS practitioners. Now, CSMs are trained on how to craft emails, perfect a call with a client, and so on. Even though they are called sales trainings, they are applicable for everyone in business. The CSMs don’t get too technical, hovering around 5-6 on a scale of 1-10 for technicality. 

Teams at Braze are less focused on the details of negotiations and more focused on technical aspects - domain knowledge, subject matter expertise, and API documentation would be on the “to know” pile over negotiation textbooks, for example. A lot of talk of skill sets boil down to technical difficulty, how subject matter expertise is distributed, and needs of the customers. 

How does each type of ownership impact client trust? 

Transparency is key. When a CSM is owning the relationship, they can provide detail on the contract and order forms. The process for some renewals or changes can be organic. For example, if the customer needs help changing to a new connector when they move to Netsuite, it can start the conversation about growth at the company, and how it might be a good idea to fix contract terms so that it ramps up over time. Sabina sees the one-point relationship as a great way to build a true partnership and understand all of the customer’s needs. 

Scott doesn’t see moving from the CSM to the AE as lacking in transparency. Instead, it’s simply not that person’s job or function, and they can say as such. The advice the CSM can give can then be commercial agnostic, with the next step being moving the customer over to someone whose function it is to solve the problem. Keeping the money conversation separate from talking about the problems that need to get solved can grease the wheels better towards action. 

So, who should own renewals at the end of the day? 

Renewals are one of the most important points in the relationship with the customer. During that time, you have an opportunity to reflect on all that you have accomplished together, and the value you drove. Scott believes that this is not the moment for that conversation to become transactional, so separating the two is a good call. 

On the flip side, having one point of contact can mean that customers feel that they are getting a special level of treatment from their CSMs, who serve as client advocates, as well as external ambassadors for the company. If there are difficult billing conversations that move beyond the typical, Mavenlink still has a collections team for outstanding amounts. If there is additional expertise needed (BI, insights experts, etc.), this is also available. However, having one primary point of contact can help build and strengthen a cohesive relationship. 

Where do you stand on the debate? To hear more from both parties, check out the full podcast episode on Spotify!

Better relationships. Less churn.

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